A salute to Schumann
The history of classical music is so rich that it provides perpetual opportunities for anniversary celebrations. We are now in the midst of a three-year salute of more than usual intensity thanks to the bicentennials of an extraordinary group of composers who were born in a cluster as the first decade of the 19th century ceded to the second: Felix Mendelssohn in 1809, Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann in 1810, and Franz Liszt in 1811. As a group, they represent the core of the Romantic movement in music, a position they earned principally through the music they composed but also through the fascinating lives they lived.
Romanticism is a river made up of many currents, and each of these composers displayed a unique balance of Romantic traits. Of the bunch, Schumann is sometimes singled out as the quintessential Romantic, and I am loath to let his bicentennial slip away without inviting music lovers to marvel at his distinctive character. The general contours of his life are well known and often heart-rending. Born in the industrial city of Zwickau, Saxony (in east-central Germany), on June 8, 1810, he was the son of a financially comfortable bookseller and therefore grew up surrounded by intellectual richness. He was sent off to law school in Leipzig but spent his time there pursuing music instead. He signed up for lessons with the esteemed piano teacher Friedrich Wieck and actually roomed in his home. Several years passed before Wieck’s pianoprodigy daughter, Clara, blossomed into the young woman who would capture Schumann’s heart. Papa Wieck would have none of it. He tried to prevent their marriage by pressing a lawsuit, but he lost and the couple married in 1840.
In the meantime, Schumann’s prospects as a concert pianist had ended due to a repetitive-stress injury occasioned by too much practicing. He worsened his situation through various then-trendy treatments, of which probably the least destructive was the “animal bath” (placing his hands for extended periods within the carcasses of beasts). Clara served as his pianistic voice, instead, and she would be revered until her death late in the century as one of the summit musicians of her era. Schumann composed relentlessly. When he wasn’t composing, he was writing imaginative commentary about the cultural scene that was flourishing around him, sometimes channeling his music and his prose through the distinct voices of his imaginary friends: fiery Florestan, dreamy Eusebius, and the more evenhanded Master Raro (whose moniker was constructed from the end of Clara’s name and the beginning of Robert’s).
Mental illness came to dominate his life, and later generations have found in that a convenient (if sometimes questionable) explanation for some of the more eccentric aspects of his creativity, such as his tendency to focus his energy obsessively on a single genre until he felt he had reached his limits in that area and then move on sequentially to other challenges: piano music through 1839, lieder in 1840 (141 songs in that year alone), symphonic music in 1841, chamber music in 1842, and so on. Modern psychiatry might term him bipolar, but the diagnosis might extend beyond that, and it would take into account the effects of syphilis. Things went from bad to worse, and in 1854 Schumann attempted suicide; he ran through the carnival crowds thronging the streets of Düsseldorf and cast himself into the Rhine. He was rescued, but he immediately committed himself to a mental institution (a humane and enlightened one, fortunately) out of fear that he might harm Clara or their children (their eighth — the seventh to survive infancy — was born three months later). There he remained almost two and a half years, with his beloved Clara staying away, on his doctor’s suggestion, until two days before his death.